A Leader's Obituary

by Dr. Tim McGrath & Dr. Victoria McGrath

As a Chief Officer of the department you should take great pride in your accomplishments. After all, you didn't ascend to your rank by luck. Whether appointed or elected, someone or a group saw your leadership ability and potential. It is an honor to be Chief, Deputy, or Assistant in what most of us would readily admit is the best profession in the world.

We encourage you to periodically sit back and reflect on what you have accomplished - you owe it to yourself. Not just as a walk down memory lane, but rather as a self improvement tool. As part of our Master's Level curriculum we ask our graduating students to complete what appears initially to be a simple assignment... the writing of their professional obituary. This entails an assessment of the writer's contributions to their chosen profession similar to what one might read in a deceased person's newspaper obituary. The intent of the exercise of course, is not to reflect on what has been but to vision what could be! If required to actually write this type of document, would you feel you had left the mark you wanted? If not, ask yourself "what can you do about it today"?

As busy as you are with the many daily challenges you and your department face it probably seems like the worst time to actually take the time to reflect on your career goals. In reality this may be absolutely the best time, not only for you but your department. It requires that you approach this exercise in the proper frame of mind. Not focusing on what didn't work and whose fault it is; rather, focus on opportunities to harness your abilities and take the initiative that got you to the Chief Officer's position in the first place. Simply, develop a plan to reach that ultimate goal. In today's leadership jargon - reinvent yourself.

You rarely exceed your own expectations and never on a consistent basis. If the goal you desire is visible in your mind (an essential requirement) only you control the ability to reach it. Of course this does not mean all you have to do is wish it and it comes true; rather, it challenges you to harness the courage to take action, and the persistence to overcome those numerous roadblocks (challenges) that will surely be encountered.

Students, perhaps like many of you, experience a chilling reality when their obituary doesn't match the self image they had perceived or desired. There will be many reasons these two self images don't align from profession to personal. It is how one chooses to react to these challenges that ultimately determine what their obituary will say. You are justified to feel discouraged, angry, depressed, or just plain tired of dealing with these issues. The question however becomes, how long will these setbacks exist - a career or just an unpleasant detour? Past failures do not ensure future failures, only you ensure that. One only truly fails when we give up and compromise on our potential.

Fire and EMS personnel are extremely creative in overcoming problems faced on the emergency scene. Call it training, experience, or whatever reason; but the ability to overcome those challenges to save life and property is a true talent. Shouldn't one utilize those same talents in overcoming the obstacles that get in the way of achieving your ultimate goal? Surround yourself with winners - those individuals who you respect regardless of their profession. Seek every opportunity to associate with those within and outside your profession that have the passion and record of success you desire.

Remember, you are the Chief Officer and your organization's success is all about your leadership. To ensure you are moving your department forward, make sure you are moving forward in your professional development. Are you putting in the time and effort to continually be at the top of your game with knowledge acquired both within and external of the fire/EMS service? Are you painting that vision for your organization?

I'm reminded of the story of the leader in Roman times who upon landing his troops on what was supposed to be an uninhabited island; instead found the island to be heavily occupied with the enemy, who greatly outnumbering his troops. The majority of his men felt the odds were too much against them and were reluctant and/or afraid to fight; they expected their leader to return to the boats. Rather, the leader knew what needed to happen and knew if he created the right enivornment (vision) his troops would not only fight, but could win. Therefore, he burnt all the boats. It takes courage to be the leader and it takes courage to write that obituary and actually change your actions, if appropriate.

If you challenge yourself to write your own obituary today, I assure you, you won't approach tomorrow as "just another day at the office".